UK terror legislation hits website owners

Paul Boag

Here in the UK new terrorism legislation has just come into force. Here are some thoughts on the possible effect on British hosted websites.

Here in the UK new terrorism legislation has just come into force. Normally this is not the kind of thing I would post on. I am not a particularly political animal and this isn’t a politics related blog. However, this particular legislation has an impact on websites hosted here in Britain.
 

 

Sections 3 and 4 of the Act enable a police constable to give written notice to an organisation that a particular statement they publish electronically is unlawful, because it relates to terrorism. If the organisation does not remove or amend the statement within two working days then it will be considered to have endorsed the statement and thereafter be liable to prosecution for encouraging terrorism or disseminating terrorist publications.

Setting aside the debate as to whether government has the right to curtail freedom of speech, this does create some interesting scenarios.

For example, let’s say one of you decided to post a comment on this site that was deemed by the British government to be inciting terrorism. Would it be my responsibility or the responsibility of my ISP to remove that statement? If it was my responsibility then there could be any number of reasons why I might be unable to remove the comment within two days. I would therefore be endorsing terrorism and liable to prosecution. Suddenly running a community based website or allowing others to contribute content to your site becomes a lot more risky.

But that is not the end of the story. The Act also says that an organisation served with a notice is also required to take all reasonable steps to prevent future re-publication of the same or similar statements. This could in effect force some businesses off line. How would sites like MySpace deal with this? I suppose it depends on what “reasonable steps” means and how stringently they enforce this legislation.

What is obvious is that there is certainly a lot of room for abuse. With a maximum sentence the same as that you would receive from carrying a gun in a public place (seven years), I doubt smaller website owners would be willing to risk a court battle, even if they could afford to. This effectively allows the authorities free reign in removing “undesirable content” from British hosted sites.

I guess all of this might be worth while if it was actually going to be effective in the “war on terror” (whatever that means). Of course the reality of the web means that anybody who wants to incite terrorism can simply host their website out of the country. National legislation strikes me as being somewhat ineffective in this case.

The cynical part of me is left feeling that this is just some PR exercise in response to the sporadic stories that appear in the British media about people learning to make a bomb over the internet.

I wonder how long it will be before the British government will be joining China in forcing Google to remove certain content :)

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